Vocal Beauty Boot Camp 1

At Brigham Young University we need to be very efficient at teaching basic vocal technique for several reasons:
  • First, we have a very high demand for good and easily accessible singing instruction at the university. Each semester 1600 students (nearly 6% of our 29,000 student body) register for a course involving singing - in one of six select choirs, a dozen voice instruction classes, or more than 300 private instruction arrangements. In addition, each Sunday thousands more sing in a church choir in one of the 200 student congregations associated with the university.

  • Second, we want to return benefit to the church which supports our university by teaching as many students as possible to be both willing and able throughout their lives to participate in the lay choirs sponsored by each congregation in the Church.

  • Third, our overall student to faculty ratio at the university is very high - about 20 students for each faculty member. It is hard to justify a lot of one-on-one teaching.


More than thirty years ago, we began offering group voice instruction courses. These have become very popular, and we could fill many more than the ten sections of the course that we now offer each semester. Through teaching these classes, our graduate voice students learn how to teach efficiently and also find financial support for their education.

These classes are of course three to four times more efficient in terms of teacher load than private instruction - fifteen to twenty students can be taught in a group using the same faculty load with which four students can be taught one-on-one (see section A of figure 11.1).

Figure 11.1
Furthermore, some time ago we came to sense that group instruction was also a more effective way of learning basic technique, so for nearly twenty years we have also required our voice majors to take group instruction during their first semester in the major.

The effectiveness of this approach was confirmed several years ago when we began measuring growth in vocal beauty using our Voice Progress Scoring (VPS) system (see chapter 8). Collecting and averaging the VPS growth over several semesters, we found that the voice majors taking our group voice technique class showed an average of nearly three times the growth in vocal beauty of that shown by students taught privately at this same level. On the VPS scale the entering majors in group instruction scored 0.71 points in average VPS growth for the semester, compared to only 0.25 points average VPS growth for students who took private singing instruction (see section B of figure 11.1). 1

Combining the effectiveness and the efficiency factors, we are therefore in fact improving our teaching efficiency ten-fold by teaching group voice classes at the entry level (see section C in figure 11.1).

The seven faculty members who have taught this basic class over the years have, of course, experienced modestly different levels of success, but all have produced two to three times the VPS increase of private instruction. It is a rewarding class to teach and is very popular with the students who have affectionately named it Vocal Beauty Boot Camp.


Our faculty have helped reinforce a boot-camp-like rigor by articulating very clear and focused criteria for the students to meet in order to be advanced in

Figure 11.2
the major at the conclusion of boot camp (see figure 11.2 and also the more complete discussion of our standards in connection with figure 5.1 in chapter 5)

The faculty have found their subsequent work with these students in the private studio much easier if boot camp focuses on these basics in the order outlined, with particular emphases on criterion #1, "flexibly erect posture," and criterion #2, "low, flexible breath management." These are carefully explained, insisted upon, and consistently drilled in simple literature of moderate range with all of our entering voice majors, including the more advanced transfer students.

In fact, we see this as such an important launching point for our majors that we require our entering graduate students to be teaching assistants in a section of boot camp before certifying them to teach the non-major group classes which are part their graduate teaching assistantships. We feel that they not only teach the non-major group sections better, but that their own singing technique improves as they review these fundamentals in this well-drilled and insistent context.

We have also experienced in recent years a gradual increase in the VPS average in the semesters of private instruction that follow boot camp. For example, over the three year period 1995-8, there was a cumulative average rise in VPS from .25 to .31 (up 25%) for our lower division students, and a cumulative average VPS rise from .12 to .14 (up 16%) for our upper division students. We feel that this increased effectiveness of our private instruction stems in part from the lingering effects of the boot camp and in part from the fact that we faculty members have confirmed the importance of this focused set of voice basics in our own minds as we hammered them out together.


Though it is impossible to determine all of the factors that cause the students to grow so much faster in a group context, several are obvious:

As we rotate around the class, phrase by phrase, through a mutually memorized song, the students can see in each other the dramatic changes that occur when the teacher nudges each student into the simple postural or breathing adjustments they need. By the time each student comes on rotation she has often made the corrections herself. Self-chosen changes seem to stay in the body more easily than teacher-imposed adjustments. This repetitive reinforcement by silent observation cannot take place in a one-on-one experience with a teacher.

In the group context there is an exciting interaction between peer competition and peer approval that keeps students on task. In the phrase by phrase alternation between group and solo singing the students find that fears of performing in public subside, making the faculty jury at the end of the semester much less formidable. They also know that their peers will be watching and cheering at their jury, and thus they become accountable to their friends for what they have learned during the semester.

The need to keep all students involved throughout the class period encourages the teacher to simplify and focus on the basic patterns that all of the students need to acquire.

Videotaping all of the teacher interventions during periodic solo performances puts reviewable evidence of the success of those interventions in each student's hands. It also gives opportunities for roommates and family to view and reinforce the growth that they can all see emerging before their eyes.

Because of the already high skill level of our entering majors (each year we can accept only 30 from more than 200 applicants) most of them arrive accustomed to one-on-one instruction. Still, they make the shift to the group instruction mode quite easily, usually within the first few boot camp sessions. Their early reading of The Inner Game of Tennis 2 alerts them to the idea that they are about to have a new kind of learning experience. I tell them that this book will help them decipher their drill sergeant's teaching code and that I need them to help me be the kind of teacher it describes.

They also sense that something new and interesting is going to happen as we spend the first few class periods reviewing the implications of the new interactive physics model of singing. They then read "Beautiful Singing: What It Is and How to Do It" (chapter 12) as a reinforcement to those very concentrated initial lectures.

More advanced vocal majors, who have already taken the boot camp course, enjoy serving as volunteer teaching assistants and they also help pull any reluctant participants on board.

Of course, the total boot camp experience did not become a success in a fortnight. It has been maturing for thirty years. But I think none of our faculty would consider a vote to return to the traditional modes of instruction for our new students. Rather, there is desire to extend the group learning experience into later semesters. Recent mini-groups lessons have been extremely successful as follow-ups to boot camp. Four students spend an hour per week together with an experienced faculty member refining vocal technique, followed later in the week by a half-hour private session with an intern instructor, where they get help on repertoire and interpretation.

The mini-groups have at least matched the average VPS growth of the boot camp experience, that is, three to four times more VPS growth than is typically experienced in private instruction at the same level.

Here are some of the responses which these mini-group students have written on the faculty evaluation forms they fill out anonymously each semester: "I have enjoyed the small group setting to learn both from the instructor and from my peers."

"Not only did we have individual attention but also we continued to learn from one another."

"I love the group thing! So helpful, and a great transition from boot camp to private instruction."


1 The growth produced by our rigorous drill in the basics of vocal technique, assisted by the synergies of the group dynamic, can be seen in a 25-minute demonstration video: "10-Fold Teacher Efficiency Through Vocal Beauty Boot Camp".

2 Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House, 1974.